“That’s what you play for”
Zverev now wants to make history, not repeat it
06/09/2023, 12:11 p.m
Alexander Zverev is about to reach the final of the French Open, again. In the past year, hope ends in pain and screams. This time the next step should succeed. It would be a big one.
On June 3rd last year, 15,000 tennis fans witnessed one of the biggest matches ever played on the mighty Court Philippe-Chatrier, the center court of the French Open. Alexander Zverev and Rafael Nadal fought an epic duel, after three hours not even two sets were played. It was a fantastic match, not consistently high quality, but always fascinating. And completely open. Then the fight ended with a bang: Zverev tore several ligaments in his right ankle, the match ended with the German screaming.
At that time, Zverev was two wins away from finally winning his first Grand Slam tournament and thus satisfying a great longing that sometimes seems to be an obsession and at some point can become traumatic. Now the Olympic champion and two-time world champion is back, is in the same place in the tournament and will be back in the evening on the spot where a year ago the triumphal procession painfully switched to a siding. Against the Norwegian world number four Casper Ruud it is about finally taking the next step. “It was the hardest year of my life, I love tennis more than anything else in life. I don’t play the sport for money, not for fame or anything else,” said Zverev in the early hours of the morning at the end of the first week of the tournament. “When they took that away from me, it was very difficult. I’m very happy to be back here.”
“Grand Slams are tennis history”
He fought his way back here. Through a long, difficult rehabilitation phase, through a time full of sporting setbacks and through despair about myself. “I have to win and then it will solve itself. I don’t know what to say anymore. This year I’ll play it worst tennis, probably since 2015, 2016,” Zverev complained after an early exit in May at the Masters tournament in Rome. That changed in the days of Paris, at the most important clay court tournament of the year, the Hamburg player puts one strong performance after the next.
He recovers quickly from setbacks within the matches on the Paris sand, on which he feels more comfortable than his playing system actually allows. The extreme performance fluctuations of the last few weeks and months were overcome in the days in Paris.
At least for the moment, Zverev is back where he wants to be: “Tennis consists of Grand Slams. Grand Slams are tennis history. That’s what you play for,” said Zverev before the semi-final duel with the Norwegian Casper Ruud. “I think the two most important things in tennis are Grand Slams and the Olympics. If you’re in a semi-final or a final, that’s a clear difference from the finals of other tournaments.” Zverev made himself Olympic champion in Tokyo in 2021, the matter with the Grand Slams is an open wound that he still wants to close. “I don’t even think about the injury anymore,” he said recently. “I’m here to win a Grand Slam.” He’s very close again. Surprisingly close.
“Stupid Expert Comments”
Nobody really had the fallen semi-finalist from 2022 on the list, who recently staggered through the world rankings and followed strong performances with hardly explainable bankruptcies. On the contrary, tennis legend John McEnroe even saw the German “at the bottom”. The professional criticized himself harshly, but criticism from outside then rankled: “The experts sometimes make pretty stupid comments,” said Zverev before the start of the tournament, which is now supposed to turn fate for him again. He doesn’t want to be told that he’ll “never play at the top again. I’ll prove that’s not true. I know how to achieve my goals.” Before the tournament, Zverev surprisingly parted ways with his coach Sergi Bruguera, himself once the dominator of Paris. “We decided after Madrid that we would stop. We didn’t have the same opinion about how I should play tennis after the injury,” explained Zverev, who is accompanied by his father Alexander Senior in Paris.
After the convincing quarter-finals over the Argentinian outsider Tomas Martin Etcheverry, he followed up against the doubters: “I’m in the semi-finals of Roland Garros, there aren’t very, very many players who have made it,” emphasized the 26-year-old. “You don’t get into the semi-finals at Roland Garros if there’s still something missing.” There are two steps to the first Grand Slam title, like on June 3, 2022.
In any case, his opponent is looking forward to the duel: “It’s great to see him in the semifinals again,” said Ruud about Zverev. It’s quite possible that it will be another big match. Ruud put in a strong showing in his quarter-final against Danish high-flyer Holger Rune. And knows what is important in a Grand Slam semi-final: “You have to know that every match can be long, and I think I was prepared for that today,” he said after his four-set win against Rune. If the Norwegian wins again, history would repeat itself for both: Ruud was in the final last year, Zverev experienced his darkest hour. Better to write history then. In any case, there has never been a German winner at the French Open.